January 30, 2003
Jews Shine at Sundance
Maybe every film wasn't as overtly Jewish as "The Hebrew Hammer" -- a "Jewsploitation" spoof featuring the yarmulke-sporting, tzitzit-wearing, and gun-toting Orthodox hero (Adam Goldberg) who saves Chanukah from the Evil Santa (Andy Dick) -- but there sure were a lot of Jewish films at the Sundance film festival.
OK, so Sundance's films weren't strictly Jewish (unlike Larry Mark's "Schmoozefest," where he screened his own Jewish picks like UCLA's "Bat Mitzvah Blues," drawing some 75 people to Temple Har Shalom in Park City), but Jewish families, characters and themes were innate in many of the films at the 2003 festival, which ran Jan. 17-26.
Take the surprise hit of the festival, "The Boys of 2nd Street Park." A nostalgic documentary tracing the lives of a group of boys who played ball in a Brighton Beach park in Brooklyn, it was rare that religion was overtly mentioned outright in the film. Yes, one guy was the son of Holocaust survivors, another paid for a fictitious degree from a rabbi, a third shipped in kosher-for-Passover goods in Vietnam, but there was hardly a mention of the religion that united these lower-middle-class boys in Brooklyn.
"We're all Jewish," director Ron Berger admitted after the film when asked how ethnicity played a part. "Boys" -- which was picked up by Showtime and will also screen at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which runs from Feb. 28 to March 9 -- portrays the quintessential Jewish immigrant struggle; and Jewish values, like education, professional careers and "growing up with the right way of doing things," unites the group, Berger told The Journal.
But Sundance's Jews didn't always look so pretty. The Best Documentary Award-winner, "Capturing the Friedmans," zooms in on the Great Neck, Long Island upper-middle-class Jewish family ... some of whom also happen to be convicted child molesters.
Picture a soft-spoken, nebbishy father -- a bespectacled, stooped-shouldered man who kowtows to a naggy wife -- and his three balding, neurotic sons who idolize him. They're lighting the menorah, having a Passover seder, competing with their synagogue circle to be "the best" in everything -- as one father put it -- and, in this vein, start an after-school computer class in their home.
In 1987, Arthur and his youngest son, Jesse, 18, are arrested and charged with dozens of counts of sodomy and molestation of the neighborhood Jewish boys in the class. Did the father and son do it? The film manipulates the information in such a way to leave you uncertain, but that is almost beside the point -- the extremely disturbing point -- which is the disintegration of the family. Using the family's own home movies we see an outwardly normal Jewish family turn on itself as the community and world turns on them.
Darkness gets a lighter side with the festival's winner for Best Dramatic Feature, "American Splendor," the absurd tale of Jewish comic book artist Harvey Pekar. A file clerk at a veterans hospital in Cleveland, the bizarre and pessimistic Pekar (played, at times, by Paul Giamatti and by Pekar himself) turns his pathetic life into an underground comic hit, and finds -- well, not a happy ending, because this gloomy Jew can never be happy -- but at least provides entertainment for those who appreciate the ironic ("I find all American towns mildly depressing in a similar way," Hope Davis says).
But cheer up: Utah and the world aren't only seeing Jews as doom and gloom. Drag queen Charles Busch -- who won the festival's award for Outstanding Performance -- plays has-been singer Angela Arden, the wife of Jewish Hollywood movie mogul Sol Sussman in the campy spoof "Die Mommie Die." Sol warns his incestuously close daughter not to take after the "shiksa" part of the family, because she has "Jewish blood," and beautiful "punim."
A lot of spoof and a lot of darkness, but not much politics at the festival, considering these uncertain times. Notable exceptions included "The Death of Klinghoffer," which explores the making of the 1991 opera based on the 1985 Palestinian hijacking of Achille Lauro cruise ship. Combined with fictional narratives, archival footage and flash forwards, director Penny Woolcock brings to the screen the ever-present Middle East conflict and issues still unsolved decades after the hijacking.
Another theme made suddenly fresh by world events was present in "The Weather Underground," a documentary about the group of American radicals who wanted to overthrow the U.S. government in the '70s, particularly outraged over the Vietnam war, and other American military involvements. Good Jewish Ivy League kids like Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd and David Gilbert led the group, which was on the FBI's most wanted list for bombing dozens of American government buildings. When asked about America's current impending war, Naomi Jaffe admits she'd "do it all again" now if she could.
Revolutionaries, in a way, are what these offbeat Jewish characters are -- from activists to pedophiles to reforming criminals, like Billy Bob Thornton in Ed Solomon's "Levity," which is based on the Maimonidean concept of redemption.
As the Hebrew Hammer is told by Sammy Davis Jr., "You're beautiful, babe. Keep on keeping on."